Dear President Martha E. Pollack, Vice Provost Michael Kotlikoff, Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Mary Opperman, Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi and Chief David Honan,
On June 4th, Buffalo police brutalized an elderly man in an upheaval of police abuse that has spanned this country. Cornell Prof. David Collum ’77, Chemistry, publicly defended that violence. In your statement the next day, you claimed that “Professor Collum has a right to express his views in his private life.” This so-called “right” — to express your views and remain a professor at an elite institution — is not borne from the Constitution, nor any federal or state law: The University extends it, and can just as easily take it away. We, the undersigned, urge you to consider the consequences of extending this right to David Collum. You wrote that “Cornell is founded on a vision of a university, and by extension, a world for “any person.” Do you believe that “any person” would feel safe working for or taking a class from Prof. Collum?
I worked in a research lab at a university in my hometown this past summer and, for the first time in my life, experienced what it’s like to have a long commute — an hour and a half each way standing in a hot, humid, insanely crowded subway car. Most of my fellow commuters spent these long and miserable daily trips on their phones, either scrolling through Weibo (think Twitter) feeds, watching viral videos, playing online games, binging the newest hit TV series or reading trending articles on Wechat (a Chinese amalgamation of Facebook and Instagram). Hundreds of commuters with headphones on staring down at their smartphone screens was quite a sight be behold but also incredibly frustrating, especially when I had to transfer lines at one of the busiest stations downtown, and had to follow a massive crowd of people up flights of stairs to another platform, a process slowed down significantly by those who were too absorbed in their phones to even walk properly. Despite my frustration, and because social learning is a natural thing that we all do, a few days into this commuter life, I also started killing time by spending it solely on my phone, going through my Weibo feed more times than necessary, replying to comments, reading Wechat articles that I normally wouldn’t care for and, when all that was still not enough, busted out my VPN to go through Instagram and Twitter. Yet, as you may have guessed by now, aggressively working my way through every social media platform every morning and evening did not make me feel “more connected” to friends and family, all the articles I read did not make me significantly more knowledgeable in certain areas or enlighten me on social or political issues, nor did the viral funny videos make me happier.
I recently got back on Twitter, and it has been an experience. I haven’t been on Twitter since high school, and I returned to an entirely different world than the one I left behind. The last time I was trolling around on Twitter, I was 14 and subtweeting Coldplay lyrics at my AP Physics lab partner. Ryan, if you’re reading this, please note that while in retrospect I understand that the time and effort I put into finding the perfect lyric to encapsulate our (completely made up) relationship could have been better put to use attempting to achieve anything higher than a 2 on our AP exam, subtweets were an important part of my teenage experience, and I think you should be honored to have been a part of that. This time around, however, I joined with the intention of using Twitter as my news source, and while that has remained true, Twitter has also been something of an interesting experiment in how people today interact with one another and their respective opinions.
The response from Prof. William Jacobson, law, to a letter to the editor that criticizes David Collum, the Betty R. Miller Professor and Chair of the Chemistry Department, states at its outset that the letter to the editor “appears to be payback” for Prof. Collum’s anti-union views. Prof. Jacobson seems to have based this accusation solely on the fact that the writers are supporters of Cornell Graduate Students United. This union retaliation claim has since been picked up by right-wing media outlets with enthusiasm, and the graduate students are now subjects of online abuse. I write to point out two related issues. One, the claim of “payback” for Prof. Collum’s views on unions is unsubstantiated.
Having devoted the better part of my free time to social media (and not proudly so), it has been remarkable to witness the transformation in the kind of material that crops up in my feed. There have been tangible shifts, to the extent that everyone I know seems to have become a political activist at some level. Recently though, I have gotten into too many spats with people who have pulled out articles they saw on their Facebook feed on the alleged perpetuation of rape culture by the present-day Indian society, or people who have quoted a friend’s tweet verbatim to back up their point about the presidential primaries, only to stand corrected after being presented with a news report that speaks otherwise. I have become extremely wary of these quickly formulated opinions: while everyone is at perfect liberty to air theirs, generalized statements featuring charged words make me immediately put my guard up. I think this largely stems from my worries about where such opinions originate and whether they are informed or not.
There’s a great moment in Woody Allen’s Manhattan where Woody’s character Isaac chats with socialites at a cocktail party and he brings up a Nazi march coming to New Jersey. Isaac suggests that those at the party “get some guys together, get some bricks and baseball bats and really … explain things to them.” A partygoer responds that there was a devastating satirical piece on the march in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times. Another argues that “biting satire is always better than physical force.” Finally, Woody retorts that physical force is always better with Nazis, “because it’s hard to satirize a guy in shiny boots.”
I thought about that scene on Sunday night, when John Oliver went on TV to propose a solution to Trump’s domination of the GOP primary: #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain. Since actually calling out Trump for his pandering and lies achieves absolutely nothing, since he can and will say anything with the knowledge that he has a reputation for speaking the truth among those voting for him, Oliver proposed taking away his last name — a word which evokes triumph and trump cards, not to mention decades of mostly effective branding — and replacing it with Drumpf.
My boredom and lack of schoolwork has inspired productive new heights for my Internet identity.
Yesterday morning, as I was creeping on M.I.A. and Diplo’s Twitter cat fight, it suddenly dawned on me that I was no more than a no-good creeper, since I don’t know either of them … and since I didn’t even have a Twitter to call my own. So, while surfing a website to which I didn’t belong, reading M.I.A.’s comments, like, “u r a [“c u next Tuesday”] get a grrl,” was when I realized: today would be the first day of the rest of my Internet life.
I would get a Twitter.